With Sweden’s generous paternity laws and a greater number of women in high-powered roles, Stylist’s Lucy Foster wonders if this is what equality looks like.
Photography: David Newton
For many, the mention of Sweden brings to mind immaculate design, foraged menus, saunas and ludicrously beautiful people. But that’s not why we’re here. Behind Sweden’s envy-inducing lifestyle, there is a more crucial and far-reaching philosophy which drives the country’s laws and collective aspirations: the need to achieve equality. For everyone.
I’ve travelled here to find out whether it really is the most fair country in the world when it comes to gender. On paper, it’s certainly up there. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap 2014 survey, which measures female workplace participation, the gender pay gap, female political empowerment, health and education, it ranked fourth behind Iceland, Finland and Norway. The UK came 26th. Twenty-one nations stand between Sweden and us when it comes to gender equality, which is frankly embarrassing, so I’m here to investigate how the Swedish model works and if it’s something we could replicate in the UK.
Sweden has been putting the rest of us to shame when it comes to gender equality for years. Women were given equal rights to inherit property in 1845 and maternity leave in 1901, and in 1958 a doctrine was changed to allow women to become priests in the Swedish Lutheran church. Today ‘Anti-Sexism Awareness Training’ is taught as standard in kindergarten and 13 out of 24 government ministers are women. Heck, even the most famous fictional children’s character to come out of Sweden – Pippi Longstocking – is a feminist.
But Sweden is really winning the equality race with its laws and attitude towards parenting. Latte papas (the vast swathes of monochrome-clad men who congregate in coffee bars with their babies on a weekday) are becoming the most globally recognised symbol of Sweden’s generous paternity laws. Currently parents are given 16 months when a new child is born to share as they choose (although 60 days are given to each parent, and cannot be transferred – this will be raised to 90 days in 2016, which as a father, you either take fully or lose). This leave can be taken as hours, days, weeks or months over a period of eight years per child. And 390 of these days are paid at 80% of the parent’s average wage, with a cap for the highest earners. The result is that seeing a park filled with dads holding a baby in one arm and a coffee in the other is not just common, it’s ordinary. But wait: there’s more.
Childcare is subsidised by the state, and is capped at 3% of a family’s income. On average, for each child, families rarely pay more than £113 a month. Nurseries are open all day and night to allow for shift work. Although there is a gender pay gap, it is closing thanks to policies that mean parents are treated equally. According to Eurostat, it currently stands at just over 15%, with the most pronounced differences occurring in the private sector. Currently, there are no quotas in place for getting women into the boardroom but the government has threatened that, unless big companies make their boards 40% female by 2016, it will become law. In addition, all education, including university, is free and female students are the majority (women comprise 60% of all students in undergraduate education) and they routinely outperform men, with almost two-thirds of degrees awarded to women in 2014. Everyone is taxed to high heaven to pay for the above, but no-one is complaining.
Let’s compare that to the UK. Our gender pay gap is 19.7%, the sixth highest in the EU. Just under one third (nine people) of David Cameron’s new cabinet is female. With regard to our political system, the Fawcett Society believes there are key lessons to learn from the Swedish model: “Their ‘Zipper’ quotas – where one sex alternates the other on party lists – would be difficult to copy outright in the UK, but introducing quotas in certain elections would be a powerful tool in getting more women into politics.”
Shared parental leave was introduced in the UK only two months ago and allows new parents to share 350 days with 259 days paid at a statutory weekly income of £139.58 (along with whatever allowances your workplace offers) and it has to be taken within a year. Childcare is prohibitively expensive; three- to four-year-olds get 15 hours of free childcare a week (16 hours in Scotland), but before that, the average UK childcare monthly bill for a full-time place at nursery is £848, according to The Money Advice Service. Therefore in some families, having the mother (or father) return to full-time work simply covers the cost of childcare, or in the worst case, doesn’t even do that. When you consider that our gender pay gap is largely attributed to childcare falling so heavily on women’s shoulders in the UK you start to understand why the spotlight is being shone on Sweden’s progressive parental stance.
PAVING THE WAY
To learn more about how Sweden has shifted its system in favour of gender equality, I meet Monica Renstig, 63, economist, journalist and government delegate for gender equality research at the Women’s Business Research Institute in Stockholm.
Renstig has been an evangelist for equal working rights since before I was born; she shows me a newspaper cutting of her wearing glasses and blouses of the Working Girl era, when she was the co-founder of Sweden’s first recruitment agency to headhunt solely female managers. “They said the women weren’t there to recruit…pfft,” she says, shaking her head.
One of her many missions is to disseminate Sweden’s method of getting women back into work, therefore raising their wages, status and financial clout. She has two clear aims: change the system (ie the law), and get the media on your side (“Which is why it is good that you are writing this piece”). “Oh, some people say, ‘Women: you have to be more forthright, you have to be more like men, lean in!’ No!” she says. “It’s not enough if you don’t change the system. Change the law, get the journalists behind you, and the status quo will change. Politicians read the papers.”
Her PowerPoint presentations do make for convincing reading. She shows me slide after slide about how women will benefit from more equality, in the home and in the workplace, if childcare is divvied up between partners and later subsidised by taxpayers. For instance, women being able to work after a baby isn’t going to result in a sudden dearth of newborns. Statistics show that wealthy, high-earning women have more children: “You can only have children if you can afford them.”
I tell Monica I read an article that suggested some Swedish mothers feel stigmatised if they don’t go back to work after having a baby. “All women should work,” agrees Renstig. “They may argue that it’s freedom to stay at home with their children. But it’s not freedom to live off a man’s money. All women should have financial independence. It’s good for the economy, it’s good for the country, and it’s good for women.”
It certainly seems to be working for the Swedish parents I speak to. Take Joakim and Theresia Swanholm, who live in a suburban terraced house in Malmö. Their home is open, light and well-designed. He supplies car parts and she is a copywriter. They have two boys aged six and eight who are in their pyjamas watching subtitled American TV when I meet them (this is how the Swedes get so good at English). They are an average Swedish family.
We talk for hours about the difference between the UK and Sweden and it’s lovely to see this enormous sense of pride they possess. They know how forward-thinking their country is and they want to tell visitors about it. Joakim talks passionately about the time he took off to raise his boys, and how “wonderful” it was.
Theresia and her husband are proud of their country’s equality but, she explains, many Swedish women are resistant to any further dividing of the parental leave. “I wanted to take my time off, I’ve worked hard!” she says, then adds softly: “I wanted to stay at home with my children.”
Following their generous maternity leave, most women do go back to the office – 77% of Swedish women are in work, in fact, compared to 67.2% of British women. Although she accepts that there is still a long way to go, she’s grateful for what the push for equality has achieved. “It has made life so much easier for both men and women because we have greater freedom to design our lives,” she explains. “For men, it’s now possible, acceptable and even, to some extent, expected that they spend a substantial amount of time with their children. Likewise, young girls now see how much easier it is for a woman to focus on her career, even if she wants a family as well – that’s meaningful and is ingrained from a young age.”
The Swedish determination to achieve equality is going beyond the workplace and home. In April, the Swedish Academy (the institution that promotes Swedish language) introduced a new gender-neutral pronoun “hen” to bypass the need to use “han” or “hon” – he and she – if it’s thought that knowing someone’s gender is unnecessary. The transgender community has been using “hen” for years, and now it’s being used in official texts, court rulings and books. In shopping centres, unisex toilets have been introduced to minimise queues outside women’s bathrooms. “More public spaces are providing unisex toilets,” explains Camilla Myrberg, a 32-year-old preschool teacher.
Politics is changing too. Three out of the four leaders in the coalition party Alliance (who are currently in opposition) are women. The Social Democrat-Green minority coalition government, led by Prime Minister Stefan Löfvan, has been hailed as the country’s “first feminist government”. In the 2014 general election, a party called Feminist Initiative who campaign against the existing gender pay gap and violence against women just missed out on a seat in parliament, but managed to gain one MEP and seats in 13 municipalities.
The reality is gender equality is ingrained in Swedish culture, which is evident in everything, from sport to dating. Jessica, a 36 year-old higher education project manager, is fanatical about avoiding double-standards and will always pay her fair share on dates. “I would never expect a Swedish man to pay or open the door for me on a date. I was absolutely gobsmacked when I first came to the UK and men offered to pay for my drinks – I would feel obliged to tell them, curtly, that I could buy my own drinks, thank you very much!” And women in Sweden can also expect to date as many men as they choose, without the same fear of judgement they might experience in the UK. “Women typically make the first move, so there are far fewer labels attached to women when it comes to sex and dating,” adds Jessica.
Women’s sports are given as much TV airtime as men’s, sometimes with higher ratings – 4.5 million people watched the Sweden-USA Women’s World Cup game this year. “The women’s national football team are incredibly popular and it’s probably the only country I know where most men will know the name of at least one female player,” explains Sophie Inge, a journalist for The Local Sweden.
Of course, the UK is taking small steps to encourage equality. Just over three weeks ago the government announced that parents of three and four-year-olds will benefit from an increased 30-hours of free childcare a week as of 2017. But that’s not the full story. Critics believe that even the current offer of 15 free hours is underfunded, with the shortfall being paid by parents who work long days and need to pay for after-hours care. Plus, the childcare industry is already under so much pressure, it’s believed that the 30-hour offer may undermine the entire sector.
On my return to the UK I spoke to David Cameron about Sweden’s example, and whether that had influenced the government.
“I think what Scandinavia shows is the importance of childcare,” he said. “I think though we should try to build our own model which is based on quite a lot of parental choice. In Scandinavia, quite a lot of countries work on a state-provided model whereas what we have is the state, the taxpayer helping families but letting the independent sector provide the provision which is, I think, the right way round.”
But now, with our new shared parental leave, and far more freedom, as of 2017, for parents of toddlers to go back to work, it could be the dawning of new age of equality in the UK. But that firstly depends on how many men choose to bring up the baby; according to a survey by law firm Linklaters in 2014, 50% of men said they’d be inclined not to take leave if no other men in the company were doing it, while 62% of men and women worried about the effect it would have on career prospects. Are women of childbearing age still going to be seen as a ‘risk’ in the eyes of employers?
“I think it will [change employer’s attitudes],” explains Cameron. “I think employers recognise that if you don’t give women a fair chance in the workplace you’re missing out on half the talent of the country. The fact that we’ve now got the right to request flexible working, increased maternity leave but also the flexibility between mums and dads, and the childcare, I think that is helping women have more choice and more power about their working lives.”
The questions remain, though, about what happens to women once they’re back in work; is there something we can learn from Sweden about getting women into positions of power?
Fiona Hathorn, managing director of Women on Boards UK, believes that a powerful cultural shift needs to take place in this country before we can mirror Sweden’s success in getting more women onto company boards. “We need to give the UK Government’s aspirational target of 25% women for FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 listed boards a good try before we introduce quotas, which are like using a sledge hammer to crack a nut,” she explains. “However, given the current resistance from men to changing corporate cultures to ensure ‘true merit’ (equal access to all), then perhaps the UK will have no option but to prepare for EU-imposed quotas in 2020. It remains to be seen how successful this will be, but if there is anything we can learn from Sweden, it is that gender equality needs to be made a key feature of our culture before we can see any tangible change for women.”